COVID-19 Updates: The Wisconsin Historical Society hours have changed. See a full list of COVID-19 Closures and Events HERE.

Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Mccarthy, Charles 1873 - 1921

Mccarthy, Charles 1873 - 1921 | Wisconsin Historical Society

educator, author, librarian, Progressive leader, b. North Bridgewater, Mass. He graduated from Brown Univ. (Ph.D., 1896), and the Univ. of Wisconsin (Ph.D., 1901). His Ph.D. thesis was awarded the Justin Winsor prize by the American Historical Association, and published in 1903 as The Anti-Masonic Party. In 1901 McCarthy was appointed assistant to Frank Hutchins (q.v.), secretary of the Wisconsin Free Library Commission in Madison, and in the same year was appointed to head the department of state documents (designed to provide legislators with reference materials at the time when the State Historical Society's library was being moved from the Capitol to its new building on State Street). McCarthy soon built this department into a model legislative reference library, the first of its kind in the country. Not only did McCarthy provide reference material to the legislators, but soon set up a bill-drafting department, prepared to draft bills in legal form on any subject required. In 1907 the service was officially recognized, and McCarthy was made chief of the Legislative Reference Library, serving in this capacity until his death. He also conducted seminars on legislation at the Univ. of Wisconsin (1905-1917), and was instrumental in creating the state board of public affairs (1911). At the request of this board he conducted investigations into agricultural conditions in Wisconsin, and as a result became an ardent advocate of farm co-operatives and government planning to meet agricultural needs. He was instrumental in organizing the National Conference on Marketing and Farm Credits to deal with agricultural problems on a national scale, and from 1914 to 1915 served as director of investigations for the U.S. Commission of Industrial Relations. Throughout his career he supported the widening of the state's educational opportunities, and was a vigorous promoter of the university's extension program, and of adult and vocational education. During World War I, McCarthy helped set up the state Council of Defense and Selective Service System, and was a member of the Federal Food Administration and the War Labor Policies Board. One of the most prominent and dynamic figures in Wisconsin progressivism, McCarthy was the author of The Wisconsin Idea (1912), believed by many to be the best contemporary summation of the Progressive movement's program and philosophy. Although McCarthy was often closely identified with Robert M. La Follette, Sr. (q.v.), there did not exist between the two men the strong political and personal loyalty that was often evident between La Follette and other state Progressive leaders. In 1912 McCarthy helped draft the Bull Moose platform and gave his support to Theodore Roosevelt, and in 1918 he was an unsuccessful candidate for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senator. As a Progressive leader, McCarthy was less a politician than the embodiment of the Progressive public administrator and educator working to realize social welfare through the service state. He died in Arizona where he was vacationing because of ill health. Dict. Amer. Biog.; E. A. Fitzpatrick, McCarthy of Wis. (New York, 1944); R. S. Maxwell, La Follette and the Rise of the Progressives ... [Madison, 1956; C. McCarthy Papers.

The Wisconsin Historical Society has manuscripts related to this topic. See the catalog description of the Charles McCarthy Papers for details. See also the Charles McCarthy Petiton Signatures.

View a related article at Wisconsin Magazine of History Archives.

View newspaper clippings at Wisconsin Local History and Biography Articles.

Learn More

Explore more than 1,600 people, places and events in Wisconsin history.

[Source: Dictionary of Wisconsin biography]